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Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Politics, Schmolitics.

It’s not often that I agree with Joan Collins, in fact this is a first. However as faithfully reported in a recent issue of The Daily Mail – an organ I like even less than La Collins, more on which a little later – I just had to concur with this: “I pity the poor children of today,” sympathised Joanie, “who are exposed to the nasty adult world of profanity, porn and poverty of thought. Kids take on board the mindless slosh that drips through TV and films today; famous footballers who brawl in bars, slaggy ‘glamour models’; and foul-mouthed comedians who joke about the most disgusting things. These are the role models of today.” Who she seems to think are responsible for the many school leavers that are unable “to read or write properly and are totally unfit to earn a living.” Some of this is a bit rich coming from an ancient B-list actress who appeared topless in at least three of her films during an era where such behaviour really was deemed disgusting, but nevertheless, and as The Sun might snigger, she had a couple of good points.

Readers of these blogs will by now be familiar with my own coruscating views on the evident moral decline of western civilization and in truth I sometimes wish I could pen something more uplifting, but if it’s hiking in the Chilterns, the Best Pushchairs Under £100 or amusing little eateries tucked away in the lesser reaches of Suffolk, then I’m afraid the weekend supplements are always going to be ahead of my game. So for the moment I shall stick with pessimistic fatalism and duly informed by Joanie I noticed in the same issue of the i that reported her Daily Mail utterances, news of major survey of eight- to 17 year-olds which concluded that those who regularly read text messages were much more likely to be below average readers than those who didn’t. More dishearteningly, only 5.4% of this sample admitted to regularly reading fiction.

This might account for the level of illiteracy bemoaned by Joanie which, by the way, was prompted by comments by her “many friends in business” who just can’t find the staff they need (e.g. spin-doctors, wig-makers, plastic-surgeons?), but whilst I personally share her grief, there are those who would aver that this matters not a jot because society is simply and inevitably embracing these new forms of communication and changing accordingly.

A whole school (sic) of educational thought espouses the benefits of grammar- and punctuation-free phonetics, and social networking sites which, let us not forget, facilitate the overthrow of dictatorships as well as the looting of high streets, have between them created a language that aped the argot of science fiction monsters a few decades ago. Add to this the high-speed, staccato-cut visual imagery that some of us oldsters might find annoying if not bewildering, and it’s perhaps no wonder that attention spans have diminished and Joanie’s feckless youth lack the ability to concentrate on books or even magazine articles containing more than a few hundred words?

But if it’s only old farts who lament this, there are surely more genuinely sinister aspects to this march of cultural development? For a start, the normality of text messaging, Twittering and Facebooking is generally undertaken with little or no thought to its consequences. Cyber bullying, riot-inciting Facebook and Blackberry trafficking and shameless sexual harassment are just three examples of how digital media encourages communication without responsibility: just tap out a whim-inspired message, press ‘send’ and out it goes into cyber-space which, because there’s no-one on the end of a ‘phone or across a table to answer back seems to remove any consideration of consequences. And an old fashioned letter requires so much more thought, effort and the almost ludicrous cost of a stamp all of which might actually facilitate pause for thought during its composition.

Quite apart from the dangers of such instant communiqués and the slapdash language that they’ve now normalised, there is also the sheer volume to contend with. I really, really do not understand how those addicted to Twitter and Facebook find time to do a job of work (and here a nod to Ms Collins and her business pals may again be due), much less poke their noses into a book or their feet into a gym, cinema or art gallery. I have enough trouble tearing myself away from the great god of email to engage in such cybernautics, let alone spend the hour or so a day I once spent reading a newspaper or a few chapters of latest Jeffrey Archer’s latest masterpiece.

Of course the emergence of digest media like Metro, The Week and most recently, the Indie’s baby sister, i – which I do actually buy every day, but mainly ‘cause it costs only 20p and the Indie is a shadow of its former self – reflect if not intellectually nourish the Twittering, time-poor middle classes. But where I wonder will it all end? Well to mount another of my regular hobby-horses, if this race to illiteracy continues, then no-one will be reading books in a few years time. Which is just as well because there won’t be any libraries left: after all, isn’t it so much more important to mount a single Tornado raid on Libya than keep open the average public library, both of which cost approx. £40,000… and don’t even get me started on the cost of our Afghani and Iraqi adventures?

As for newspapers and magazines, well within what little there’s left of my lifetime, they’ll all be gone too. With the possible exception, that is, of the celeb-based rags that continue to proliferate, so at least we’ll still be able to absorb the wisdom of such latterday sages as Joan Collins.

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Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.

For those of you who live in cities, much of what follows may prove baffling, or more likely, irrelevant. But here in rural Wales the business of simply getting from A to B can prove vexatious – underlining, if nothing else, how dependent on the mercy of governments and oil companies we who live here are. In this town of some 2,000 inhabitants there are but four buses a day to the nearest town with a railways station, two of which don’t easily connect with any train I’d want to catch to, say, London or Birmingham. So most people get in their cars and drive the 15 miles to the station where, for the moment anyway, they can park for free. That, or they badger a friend, lover or family member to ferry them there and back. (The taxi option is a withering £20-30 depending on who you use and how drunk you are).

If, as many people do, you have to work in one of the bigger towns or cities within a 25-50 miles radius, then buses are hardly an option. But with fuel at £6+ a gallon and insurance costs escalating alarmingly, commuting by car adds hugely to the cost of working, and ergo, living.  And although it strikes me as a false economy – if only because I don’t have a whole family to feed – many residents drive 16 or 22 miles to the nearest towns with large supermarkets instead of buying somewhat more expensive supplies (due partly to, yes, transport costs) from our local Costcutter, butcher, greengrocer, newsagent and most recently, fishmonger… all of whom have been seriously feeling the pinch since the recession kicked in and the case of the last two I fear are not long for this world. The ironmonger and baker packed it in years ago, as did the sole remaining village shops in smaller communities nearby, making more people travel more miles at more expense to bring home the bacon.  And of course those hit hardest are the older folk who make up a substantial part of the rural population and who, because they aren’t able to travel to the nearest Tesco or Morrisons, are obliged to live on the minimum rations they can afford at the marginally more expensive local shops.

So there we have it: transport costs push up the price of food in small rural areas, and with a collective shrug of  “Market forces, dear boy”, the government does almost nothing to compel the oil, energy and transport companies to at least keep their prices at or below inflation and thus living outside the major conurbations become much more expensive than living in them.

What the government has done is hire t.v’s Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ Portas to advise them on ways of regenerating high streets. This sounded like a typical bit of benign window dressing until it was revealed that the same Ms Portas’s Yellowdoor consultancy earns £5million p.a. advising retail park developers how to drag custom away from town centre high streets… But then this coalition government does hypocrisy really well, just look at their reaction to the phone hacking scandal. So it came as no surprise to me that Portas’ Yellowdoor consulting operations were not mentioned in a piece in last Saturday’s Guardian on her sterling efforts of increase footfall on the very high streets that Yellowdoor regards so contemptuously.

As it happens, last Saturday’s Guardian magazine had a well researched but ultimately depressing cover feature on how Tesco never takes no for an answer when it comes to decimating existing retail townscapes and forcing people into their cars (assuming they’ve got them). Bribing town councillors, speculative ‘land-banking’ and wearing down protesters until they get their way is a long game they can afford to play and arguably, along with bankrupting all but industrial-scale farmers, must play because they must keep expanding in pursuit of ‘shareholder value’. Which is of course the capitalist mantra that, along with offshore tax avoidance and a feckless addiction to property speculation helped orchestrate the banking crises which we lowly tax-payers are all now, well, paying for. As the Guardian’s John Harris eloquently and bitterly explains, “Supermarkets have their own suppliers and support services, independent shops use local food producers, solicitors, accountants. And when any (of them) start to suffer, you get a domino effect. If we’re not careful, we will sleepwalk into a future where the Big Four (supermarket chains) represent the only choice we have.”

I know such hand-wringing for what must seem like a bygone retail age may just  sound commercially naïve, but it cannot be coincidental that all of my townie friends who come to visit leave entranced at the sense of community that still – just – exists in our small town, a spirit undeniably enhanced, if not a consequence of, everyone bumping into everyone else on the high-street whilst  they’re doing at least some of their weekly shop.

As for me, well not immune to a slice of hypocrisy myself, after the frustrating, countrywide search I chronicled some months ago, I’ve finally found an immaculate Citroen XM to replace my battered old estate car. It is not the relatively economical diesel or petrol-engined 2-litre version I had originally sought, but because it had been meticulously maintained during its 14 year life, I ended up buying a gas-guzzling 3-litre V6 automatic with leather interior and every option known to man (circa 1997) at a price I couldn’t really afford.

Man and machine in perfect harmony, just before gas-guzzling off to Tesco's

It is of course absolutely sensational to drive in the way that only hydropneumatically suspended Citroens are, and something I really, really needed to own before I peg it, but its thirst and my innate respect for the planet will, if nothing else deter any temptation to skulk off to Leominster or Ludlow for that essential tin of foie gras that my local mini-mart just refuses to stock.

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